Campbell, John W(ood), Jr.
John W(ood) Campbell, Jr. 1910–1971
(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Don A. Stuart, Karl Van Campen, and Arthur McCann) American science fiction novelist, short story writer, essayist, and editor.
Campbell has been called perhaps the single greatest influence on modern science fiction, both as a writer and as editor of Astounding Science Fiction, one of the most honored magazines in the genre. Campbell's "space operas" were considered to equal, and ultimately to surpass, the achievements of E. E. Smith, the most popular science fiction pulp writer of the 1930s. Many of these early stories touted the beneficence of machines as facilitators for human achievement. This preoccupation with "hardware" was faulted for stressing an impersonal, technocratic elitism over concern for humankind as a whole. Campbell eventually moved away from his highly popular but largely one-dimensional super-weapon tales to stories which concentrated upon and promoted the benefits of scientific ideas and technological inventiveness.
Campbell's reputation was built upon such action-invention stories as the "Arcot, Morey and Wade" series, including The Black Star Passes (1953), Islands of Space (1957), and Invaders from the Infinite (1961), and the "Penton and Blake" tales in The Planeteers (1966). Although The Mightiest Machine (1947) and The Moon Is Hell (1951) were noted for their technical advances in realism, Campbell also wrote mood pieces published under the name Don A. Stuart. Among these are some of his most respected works: "Twilight" (1934), "Night" (1935), and "Who Goes There?" (1938). This last is considered a classic of science fiction and it has been filmed twice, as The Thing from Another World and The Thing. A departure from previous work in its attention to plotting and characterization, "Who Goes There?" is among the last pieces of fiction Campbell wrote. Works published later, including the stories in The Incredible Planet (1949), a collection of his "Aarn Munro" series, and the posthumous The Space Beyond (1976), are thought to have been written in the early 1930s.
In 1937 Campbell became editor of Astounding Stories, later titled Astounding Science Fiction and then Analog. He retained this position for 34 years. Astounding was the leading science fiction magazine until the 1950s and, despite diminished significance in light of the challenges from new magazines, it remained respected and influential. The magazine won eight Hugo Awards under Campbell's leadership. Its prominence was due to Campbell's insistence on continual improvements in the content and physical quality of the publication. Campbell assembled a group of writers and shaped their work with many of his own story ideas and suggestions for stylistic refinement. Although, as E. F. Bleiler remarked, Campbell was sometimes considered "arrogant, dictatorial, and condescending," he was also respected for the help he offered his writers and the careful attention he gave to all submissions. Under his tutelage, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey, and many others were given a showcase.
Campbell's principal writings after he became editor of Astounding were his frequently controversial editorials. He wrote of nearly every sociological subject from a scientific viewpoint. His own background in science often prompted hypotheses which engendered long-running dialogues between Campbell and his readers, some of whom were scientists. Many of these writings are included in Collected Editorials from Analog (1966). As his interest in various kinds of pseudoscience increased, most notably his strident defense of L. Ron Hubbard's "dianetics", his credibility with readers became strained.
Although Campbell's place in science fiction as a writer has been variously assessed in recent years, he is credited with the initial advancement of science fiction into a position of increased acceptance and respect as a literary genre.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed. [obituary]; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8.)
There is a school of thought that holds that the dramatic Orson Welles War of the Worlds scare, on the evening of October 30, 1938, provided the real basis of the science fiction magazine boom of that period. That the program may have helped give impetus to the spate of new publications is quite possible, but that it inspired them is impossible, since four new magazines … had been publicly announced as forthcoming before the date of the program.
Until wartime paper shortages curtailed publishers' optimism … [fifteen additional science-fiction magazines] would be added to the list. By contrast, before the boom there had been but four magazines in publication, and one of them was predominantly supernatural…. (p. 336)
The demands of this widening market naturally attracted to the field many authors who had never written science fiction, as well as lured back others who had been absent for a long period. Most important, it encouraged the development of new talent, writers destined to remake the form of science fiction.
The key figure in this process is John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science-Fiction. Campbell … had become the editor of Astounding Stories in 1937. Though only twenty-eight, he was regarded then as one of the half-dozen greatest living writers of science fiction. He had established his first reputation by composing great super-science epics which...
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Campbell was a true giant in popularity among those authors who had grown out of the science-fiction magazines. The Mightiest Machine … epitomized the type of story that had created his followng. Mighty spaceships move at speeds faster than light from star system to star system, warping themselves through another dimension at the whim of Aarn Munro, a mental and physical superman, descendant of earthmen raised on the surface of the planet Jupiter. He custom-contrives universe-shaking energy weapons to combat alien fleets in universe-wide battles. Like Edward E. Smith, Campbell was undeniably a literary Houdini in the mind-staggering art, convincingly manipulating stupendous forces on a cosmic scale.
Time was running out on macrocosmic spectaculars like The Mightiest Machine; changes were occurring in plotting and writing science fiction that were to make the story a period piece before it was completed; yet its impact was so profound on a youthful Englishman, Arthur C. Clarke, that nearly twenty years later he would use a race similar to [Campbell's villains] … in his greatest critical success, Childhood's End….
Notwithstanding, Campbell's major contribution in both storytelling and influence was yet to come. More than is true of most writers, his early life and background shaped the direction he would take in specific plot ideas as well as in method. (p. 28)
[As a student...
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In the pantheon of magazine science fiction there is no more complex and puzzling figure than that of John Campbell, and certainly none odder. Under his own name,… he wrote gadgety, fast-moving, cosmic-scaled science fiction in the E. E. Smith tradition, and became, after Smith himself, its acknowledged master; as "Don A. Stuart," he began a one-man literary revival which eventually made that tradition obsolete. As editor of Astounding, he forced the magazine through a series of metamorphoses…. More clearly than anyone, Campbell saw that the field was growing up and would only be handicapped by the symbols of its pulpwood infancy; he deliberately built up a readership among practicing scientists and technicians; he made himself the apostle of genuine science in science fiction…. (pp. 34-5)
In the hasty, ill-composed and ill-considered introduction to … Who Goes There?, Campbell says of the first Don A. Stuart story, "Twilight," that "it was entirely different from any science fiction that had appeared before." He ought to have added, "in Gernsback's Amazing Stories or any of its successors"; so qualified, the statement would have fallen at least somewhere near the truth.
"Twilight" is what Campbell says it is, a pure mood story—and as such is the lineal descendant of H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine," Rudyard Kipling's "A Matter of Fact" (both circa 1890), Stephen Vincent Benét's "By the...
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John W. Campbell Jr., escaped from MIT and, a fine traditional sf writer himself (and for a time, as Don A. Stuart, a superb fantasist), took over the editorial chair of Astounding Science Fiction thirty years ago. In less than a couple of years he attracted to himself and the magazine (the same thing, really) a nucleus of extraordinary writers. A few had been around for a while—Simak, Leinster, Lieber; the others he discovered or invented or, it sometimes seems, manufactured. Pratt and deCamp, L. Ron Hubbard …, van Vogt, del Rey, Heinlein, Hamilton—Campbell, through these men, created what has been called a Golden Age of sf.
He was a superb and provocative teacher of science and of fiction. "Give me a story about aliens," he would challenge, "in which they think as well as a man but not like a man." He would return a story because it turned upon the fission of light metals or a compound of argon, and would explain to you in five or six or seven single-spaced pages why this was not possible—and give you something which would really work, and which in some cases, as with our nuclear energy technology, ultimately did. He conveyed his preoccupations with power (all kinds), superiority (our kind) and scientific probability up and down and across the disciplines, so forcefully to his disciples that they produced a body of Campbellian literature on which the entire field pivoted, and which profoundly affects it to this...
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An illuminating moment in the schism between the science fiction establishment and its foes came about in 1967 and 1968, when the science fiction community, like the rest of American society, engaged in loud debate over the Vietnam war. Starting at the Milford Conference in August 1967 (an annual science fiction writers' workshop) the proposal was made that science fiction writers express themselves on the issue of the war. (p. 26)
The final result was not one but two statements, which appeared as paid advertisements in 1968 issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction. An examination of the signers of the two statements is illuminating as to the state of science fiction, a state which has continued to evolve since 1967–68 but which has not been essentially altered since then.
The "war" ad carried 72 signatures including those of Poul Anderson, Leigh Brackett, John W. Campbell, Hal Clement, L. Sprague de Camp, Edmond Hamilton, Robert A. Heinlein, Joe L. Hensley, R. A. Lafferty, Sam Moskowitz, Larry Niven and Jack Williamson. The "peace" ad carried 82 signatures including those of Isaac Asimov, Peter S. Beagle, James Blish, Anthony Boucher, Ray Bradbury, Terry Carr, Samuel R. Delany, Lester del Rey, Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, Harlan Ellison, Philip José Farmer, Harry Harrison, Damon Knight, Ursula K. LeGuin, Judith Merril, Joanna Russ, Robert Silverberg,...
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[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally published in a different form in Film Quarterly, Winter 1959.]
[The Thing from Another World, a 1951 film released in the United States as The Thing,] was based on a short novel by John W. Campbell, Jr.,… [entitled] "Who Goes There?" The story is regarded as one of the most original and effective science fiction stories, subspecies "horror." Its premise is convincing, its development logical, its characterization intelligent, and its suspense considerable. Of these qualities the film retained one or two minutes of suspense. The story and the film are poles apart. Probably for timely interest, the Thing crashed in a flying saucer and was quick-frozen in the Arctic. In Campbell's story "it had lain in the ice for twenty million years" in the Antarctic. In film as in source, when the creature thaws out it is alive and dangerous. In "Who Goes There?," when it gets up and walks away, and later when it is torn to pieces by the dogs and still lives, the nature of the beast makes its invulnerability acceptable. But there is little plausibility about the Hollywood Thing's nine lives…. Instead of the nearly insoluble problem created in Campbell's story, this Thing is another monster entirely. He is a vegetable. He looks like Frankenstein's monster. He roars. He is radioactive. And he drinks blood.
Probably Campbell's protean menace...
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LESTER del REY
Back in the very early days of science fiction, everyone knew it was impossible to make a living in the field. There were only two SF magazines being published…. Furthermore, no science fiction books were being published; so once a story appeared in a magazine, there would be no further income from it.
Writing science fiction was a hobby, not a career, and nobody questioned that obvious fact—nobody but John W. Campbell! Against all logic, he not only determined to make science fiction his life's work, but he succeeded. It took three careers to achieve his goal, during which he became almost single-handedly the creator of modern science fiction. And eventually, others with less genius or less folly found it possible to follow the trail he blazed. (p. 1)
In those days, the science-fiction stories had almost no literary value. They were crudely written, at best, and there was little attempt at characterization. The people were merely used as props to discuss the heavy use of superscience and to make the simple plots work. The important things in science fiction were the wonders of future science and the unlimited possibility for human progress. The best-liked stories dealt with adventures far out in space, where men discovered other somewhat human races and warred mightily with evil invaders of monstrous form.
Campbell took the formula and carried it to its ultimate. His science began at the...
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In the pantheon of science fiction, Campbell ranks slightly higher than a deity, yet most readers new to SF know little of the basis for his reputation. This definitive collection of short fiction [The Best of John W. Campbell] is a partial remedy…. The anthology shows Campbell's growth from a writer of competent pot boilers into a mature craftsman of a sophistication and professionalism seldom found in early science fiction. Highlights include "Twilight," everybody's idea of an SF classic; "Forgetfulness," about the evolution of knowledge; and "Who Goes There?," a suspense-horror story considered one of the best SF novellas of all time. The celebration of Campbell's other achievements—as editor of Astounding and Analog magazines for 34 years until his death in 1971—requires a full-length biography. Meanwhile, this collection will be warmly received.
Dan Miller, in a review of "The Best of John W. Campbell," in Booklist, Vol. 73, No. 1, September 1, 1976, p. 23.
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It's becoming increasingly obvious that we need a long, objective look at John W. Campbell, Jr. But we're not likely to get one.
When he was alive, Campbell was mind-numbingly complex but greatly influential because he could be seen taking major actions which could be labelled simply. Between 1932 and 1938 he made himself the co-equal of E. E. Smith among fabulists of technological optimism. "Superscience fiction" realized its full potential at his hands, and created a body of readers who, some years later, would include writers who sincerely believed that SF was technological in basis.
At the very same time, he was incubating "Don A. Stuart," who, beginning with the short story, "Twilight," and then in a brief but energetic succession of other short work … set an example which shocked many of his colleagues into re-evaluating their fundamental ideas of what could be written as pulp magazine science fiction. And he created a body of readers who, some years later, would include new writers who believed the essence of good SF was moodiness and the inclusion of alien characters who talked like thanatopsical eighteenth century English gentlemen.
In 1938, for his pains, he received the husk of Astounding Stories of Super Science and by 1940 could clearly be seen to be that almost nonexistent creature, an editor. Within the exact meaning, SF has never had another…. (pp. 46-7)
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[Recently,] Roger Elwood walked into a bookstore and was introduced to an old friend of John Campbell's…. [During the course of the conversation] it developed there were three hitherto unheard-of, unpublished, forty-year-old JWC, Jr. novellas. The guess was they had probably been intended for Hugo Gernsback and shelved when Campbell was hired by Astounding….
The novellas are Marooned, All, and The Space Beyond. They are now out, under a nice Sternback astronomical painting, as The Space Beyond,… and represent the most important SF event ever made available for … [the price]. (p. 27)
The writing is pure pre-Stuart Campbell, right down to the eccentric punctuation…. Marooned is a sort of capsulized The Moon Is Hell, set aboard an exploratory vessel trapped in Jupiter's atmosphere with no way to break free, the food and air running out, and the internal temperature dropping. Fortunately, there are three Campbellian heroes on board, and not only is the problem solved but their flanged-up inventions will be worth a fortune by virtue of transforming modern technology.
All is the prototype on which Heinlein wrote Sixth Column. And The Space Beyond is a superscience interstellar war opera, very reminiscent of The Black Star Passes and similar productions, but with peculiarities. For instance, Campbell, unlike E. E. Smith, tended...
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Jack P. Rawlins
[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally presented as a lecture at the Eaton Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy at the University of California, Riverside, in 1980.]
[In trying to determine the relationship between fantasy and science fiction, fantasy] honors the emotive side of the self, what I call the nighttime perspective. The extreme alternative is literature devoted to the exercise of the daytime powers of the intellect. Here my quintessential specimen is John Campbell's "Who Goes There?" The dramatic situation is much like that of [The Invasion of the] Body Snatchers, but the art teaches us a very different response. Again, an alien thing capable of swallowing humans and making perfect replicas has gotten loose. Some members of the population have already been processed; some have not. How can the thing be stopped?
The scientists of "Who Goes There?" respond, not with screams (or at least the first screams are immediately frowned upon and regretted as counterproductive), not with pell-mell running, but with a cool, scientific determination to gather data, learn the physical properties of the monster, and thus control it…. [The] data produce hypotheses that are systematically tried, the results are used to form better hypotheses, and finally a test is devised to discriminate human from nonhuman. The test is applied to all members of the population, the monsters among us...
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Thomas J. Remington
Introspection is a bug-bear that affects most genres of popular culture once the purveyors and consumers of the genre begin to take themselves seriously. Usually this introspection takes as its points of departure attempts to define historically just exactly what the genre is; then through the establishment of rules for inclusion and exclusion it tries to demarcate those practitioners who belong (or don't belong) in the genre.
Science Fiction has been experiencing such growing pains for some time now…. (pp. 58-9)
The clearest example is Astounding Science Fiction: July, 1939, a facsimile reprint of "the first 'great' issue" of that classic SF pulp "produced under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr."…
For SF historians, the association of John Campbell's editorship with Astounding stands as the event in the "Golden Age" of science fiction. Campbell's Astounding is revered for giving birth to much of the early work of such major SF authors as Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, and A. E. van Vogt. The particular issue here reprinted contains, in fact, the first stories published in Astounding by both Asimov and van Vogt.
But the sensitive reader will be quick to surmise that, for all the hoary legends citing it as the mother lode of the Golden Age of SF, Astounding was no Megalia Nugget….
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